A trip to the Paralelní Polis
It was a random February morning when I found out about the Paralelní Polis.
As usual, I was doing some of my nerdy researches looking for projects and people operating in the digital world. I eventually ended up on the Paralelní Polis website, where I found out about these young crypto-anarchists who have their headquarters – The Paralelní Polis, indeed – in Prague. There, they develop new ideas, hold conferences and workshops, and even serve coffee and cakes in exchange for bitcoins.
No traditional currency there, in any form; just crypto.
It seemed pretty obvious to me: I had to go to Prague and meet them, find out what was going on there.
I bought the plane tickets, booked an Airbnb, and waited for my trip to come.
Finally, on May 23rd, I flew off to Prague.
I arrived at the Prague International Airport later that evening, and waited impatiently for the next morning to come.
Entering the Bitcoin Café, which is where the public can physically come into contact with the people and the projects of the Polis, I see exactly what I was expecting: lots of young people working on their computer, talking and debating about issues such as the use of blockchain in today’s society, the fluctuability of the cryptocurrencies, the importance of individual freedoms.
I approach the cryptocurrencies ATM and exchange my Checz crowns into Bitcoin, in about two minutes. What might seem the hardest of things, is actually a piece of cake.
Easier than purchasing something on Amazon.
Once I have my Bitcoins, I sit at a table and look around, getting more and more excited by the second. The place is cozy and intimate. The bar is right in the middle of the room, so that everyone can get things independently.
Anyhow, there’s a girl who takes care of making coffees and bringing your order, if you don’t feel like challenging your bar skills.
I decide that’s exactly how I feel, and take the opportunity to ask her if anyone is willing or available to answer some questions regarding the whole Paralelní Polis project. She gets back a few seconds later, followed by a young and casual guy.
He introduces himself as Jakub Soucek, the director of the Bitcoin Café.
Making the most of every minute he has to give me, I start asking my questions right away.
How did this whole project start?
The Polis was founded by the artistic group “Ztohoven” (group 77) which is a pun and means “outside of the system”. One of their most famous initiatives consisted in stealing the national flag from the Prague castle and substituting it with a red shirt. The Polis is definitely another of the biggest initiatives they led. We’ve been here for more than 3 years now, and we’re trying to build a physical platform for people to disagree with the system and find their own way of living in a society without necessarily fighting the existing establishment; we are building our own parallel trail.
We are not here to tell people the path they should follow, we’re just giving them space and freedom to choose.
How do you do that?
The main tool we’re currently using is the cryptocurrency; it was only Bitcoins at first, but now there’s a vast possibility of choice. Cryptocurrency gives people financial freedom. Nobody says it’s the best way of all, but at least it gives you freedom; you won’t have to fear that the government might steal your money, because this is technically not possible.
This whole project is an educational center of such decentralized technology.
We have 4 floors, the first one is the “Bitcoin Coffee” which is a simple café whose aim is to show people how easy it is to use cryptocurrencies and how you can use them to just get some coffee. It really is just about raising awareness of such things and creating a space where the public can interact with the project.
On the basement floor, there’s the “Crypto Lab” which is a hackerspace, something like a place where IT guys can share ideas and make them a reality.
Above us there’s the Paper Hub, a co-working open space, whose membership fee is paid according to the hourly usage, in Bitcoin and Litecoin.
On the last floor, there’s the Institute of Cryptoanarchy, probably the most important element in here, because it’s where any kinds of ideas are shared through workshops, speeches and conferences.
How do you found yourselves?
Each floor is somehow useful to this purpose. They’re all financially separated: each one has its own budget and partners. We also have a board of donors, but it’s very small. They’re not important enough to buy us and tell us what to do. They’re actually giving 15 thousand monthly each, and there’s 6 or 7 of them, so the total doesn’t even cover half of the monthly rent of the building.
We also strictly accept only cryptocurrency and manage the whole project only with it, from the payment of the rent to the payment of the coffee stocks. That’s another difficulty, since not every landlord or coffee supplier accepts it, but we won’t partner with anyone who’s not open to discuss about it and eventually use it.
What is the overall political vision? Why do you disagree with the system?
Pretty simple. Even if it’s really fancy to say that now everything’s so democratic, actually the majority of the people is forcing the minority of the people. I don’t have a choice. I simply have to pay taxes. Even if I disagree. My only freedom is to go voting every 4 years or so. Most people are poor and there’s so many uneducated people who usually have different opinions than the rest, but they still have to listen to the rest. Is this really democracy?
So do you see the blockchain as the tool that would make it possible to have freedom and justice for all?
Well, the blockchain technology is getting more and more tangible, and using it to run a State could change so many things. For instance, in the Checz Republic we have around 10 million people, but half of a million is working for the State. That is really a lot, and their work is basically checking whether I’m paying taxes or not, if I’m behaving according to this or that law… most of those people think they’re protecting me, but I didn’t ask for it. I don’t want to be protected. So, what’s the point?
Do you get paid with cryptocurrencies?
Yes. Everyone here gets paid with cryptocurrencies. We don’t use crowns unless we really have to; for example, if I buy something from Tesco, they simply won’t care about my ideas and won’t accept the cryptocurrencies, and I will need to use crowns. Also, to pay the rent I need to change my bitcoins into crowns, since my landlord is not so open-minded, and to pay the electricity as well.
I was reading just today an article that said that the Checz biggest gas company will now start accepting Bitcoins. So if I had gas, which I don’t, I could just pay with them!
So yes, I’m partly exchanging my salary into crowns, but I’m saving about half of it in Bitcoins, trying to keep it for the future. I’m also using some of it to buy stuff, especially on the internet, where it’s much easier to find a service that accepts crypto. If I had to buy an iPhone, for example, I would look for a retailer that accepts Bitcoins, which is most likely to operate online. Basically, we all use it as much as we can.
This is also because we’re facing kind of a bad moment in the Bitcoins market, since lots of people are waiting for them to increase their value and get richer. So, basically, they don’t spend any money and the value eventually drops.
I believe the bitcoins’ value will keep being unstable for another 10 years or so, but this is definitely not a worry. People who operate here in the Polis are totally okay with that. They don’t even consider the value of Euros or Crowns; for them it’s only about Bitcoins, so they don’t really care about the exchange rate, whether it fluctuates or not. It’s just not important. They’re already living in the future.
So do you deal with the blockchain system personally?
I use the system everyday, being the director of the bitcoin Coffee, but I’m not a programmer.
Do you have any position regarding the environmental side of the use of the blockchain, since it consumes huge amounts of energy? Do you think it’s realistic to build up a State on such a system?
Well I think it’s pretty hypocrite to ask ourselves how much does the blockchain system consumes, when nobody asks how much energy bank systems need. Nobody even thinks about this.
I think these kinds of questions are coming from people working for the bank establishment, because they are afraid of the blockchain, which would destroy them. These are poisoning inquiries.
Of course the system takes a lot of energy, non-renewable energy, so it’s not great for the environment, but if you compare it to the bank system, I can’t even say if it’s better or worse; I don’t know, nobody knows. I just know that on this street there’s three banks and around 7 ATMs, and I suppose they’re consuming a lot of energy, working 24/7.
(To go deeper into the topic:
- https://www.forbes.com/sites/shermanlee/2018/04/19/bitcoins-energy-consumption-can-power-an-entire-country-but-eos-is-trying-to-fix-that/#5d9d8f4f1bc8 )
What do you think of the issue of privacy?
It depends. Most people don’t even know that bitcoin is not anonymous. Litecoin isn’t either. Most cryptocurrencies allow users to see all the transactions on the blockchain, which is public. I can look through the whole blockchain and see everything that has happened. I don’t know from who to whom; I see the transactions but I don’t see who made them and why.
Then you have cryptocurrencies like Monero, which is completely private. The thing is that it’s not very practical right now since there still are some technical issues that need to be figured out. To keep the privacy high you need some time between every transaction, so everything gets much slower. Such a cryptocurrency doesn’t rely on a public blockchain, so nobody sees anything.
So you guys don’t want to change the world, you just want to create an alternative for people to be able to choose.
Exactly. I would say that we do want to change the world, but not by forcing people to use our system. It’s up to them; if they want to live on a banks system, it’s their choice. But we think they need to have that choice, which means having alternatives. We can see everyday how right now nobody really has a choice.
There are coming more and more restrictions against the crypto. Why? Why can’t they live together? It’s my free choice, I’m an adult; if something goes wrong it’s my mistake. It’s like buying a car: you know cars can go really fast, and you could kill someone, but you won’t do it. It’s your responsibility.
So, what do you think of the quote “my freedom ends when yours begins”? It sounds nice to say we should all be free, but then it’s hard to find the right balance, isn’t it?
[giggles] Sure. Well, as you said it’s a nice idea, but it’s hard to say how it should work generally. I basically think it should be more about the dealing between people, and not about a central government which says everyone what they should do. Our first president said that when people are able to handle a problem without a third party, it’s not necessary to have that third party. So, once we don’t really need banks anymore, we should get rid of them.
Whenever we develop some new technology that can solve not only financial problems but all kinds of other problems, the third parties involved should just disappear. We wouldn’t need them anymore.
Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t work that way. When we have some new technology that finds solutions to any kind of problem, they basically just try to sneak in and regulate it. And also to make some money out of it, all the time.
So, it’s hard to say. Of course I shouldn’t force you. For example, think of smoking and non-smoking places. We are a non-smoking café, but it was our decision. We are against the fact that the government comes and tells everybody “you cannot have a smoking restaurant”, because it’s my place and I’m not forcing you to come in. If you don’t like the place you simply won’t come in and won’t spend your money. If I am not such a good business guy, or if the business is not successful because of the smoking policy, I could choose to change the policy. But it has to be my choice.
And, by the way, I’m a non-smoker.
So do you have any plans of expanding the project? If so, how?
Well, thanks to our State men we are still in a period of survival, even after 4 years. We are in the best position we’ve ever been, but it’s still pretty hard to survive. We’re working on the promotion of the Polis to bring here as many people as possible, especially from the Checz Republic, since we’ve found out that we’re more famous internationally than nationally. People living two blocks away don’t even know we exist, and then there’s people coming from abroad to visit us, like you.
This project is still mostly led by IT guys and artists, and there’s no managers and people working in the marketing, so it’s kind of hard for us from that point of view.
Another idea aimed to expand is actually just becoming reality, since in the next few weeks a new Paralelni Polis will open in Bratislava. It will be managed by the same group of people that manages this one in Prague (group 77).
Also, last week, during a congress we held on security, there was a girl from Sarajevo and we talked about creating another Polis there.
In our dreams, in 10 years there will be a Polis in every big city of the world.
What about Liberland?
I would say that there was a good relationship with the Liberland president, we were close, but the longer Liberland is here the more we see it just as another state. It’s still much better than other states, but…still.
So do you actually believe there could ever be a world with no states at all?
I would say it’s too early to say that, but maybe one day. It also doesn’t mean that we should just sit down and wait. Liberland is probably a first step. The blockchain and the new technologies will enable new steps, hopefully.
One of the leaders of the project believes in the “Cloud Society”, which we can already see right now on Facebook for example, where there are groups of people that gather together because they have something in common. His idea is that, since thanks to technology we’re now globally connected, whenever there’ll be enough people economically strong enough to pursue their projects and be part of such a global connection, we won’t need to have borders, and we won’t need to be connected with someone just because we were born in the same geographical area and we speak the same language. We’ll be able to choose and we’ll be free.
What about the Singapore and Dubai examples, that use the blockchain technology for the opposite purpose, namely to increase the governmental control on citizens, thus reducing their freedoms?
Technology is just a tool. I would say it’s like dynamite. You can use it to get rid of a dangerous tree, but you can also kill thousands of people with it.